A tribute to Virgil, who played an instrumental role in my life for 13 years, through high school, college, and beyond. Virgil opened my eyes to many new worlds of music, and in the process, allowed me to learn as much about him as I did about the records he played. He was defined by his ability to bring ideas to life, and there’s a lot that we can learn from the music that soundtracked – and motivated – that journey. RIP.
I’ve had a lot of conversations about Virgil over the last few months, and to be honest, I still haven’t registered that he’s truly gone. Between the constant stream of posthumous work and the fact that I’m still chewing on so many of his older projects, I just haven’t fully come to terms with his absence yet. I still see Virgil everywhere.
While the social media tributes have dried up in the last 4 months, Virgil’s collage-like approach to assembling reference points and samples means that he continues to be at the forefront of my attention even when I least expect it. I can’t listen to Giles Peterson, Benji B, or Pete Tong voiceover classic BBC Radio 1 mixes without remembering his love for the institution. I can’t hear that bouncy synth used in the early grime records without remembering how he re-contextualized it for his runway shows. I hear a bit of him in every sweeping Arthur Verocai string arrangement, every glowing Stevie Wonder chord, and every goofy GZA verse. It was only a month before his death that I ordered the latest BBNG LP, and just this morning I remembered that even the cover for that record was designed by Virgil.
I recently watched Heron Preston pay tribute on The Lot Radio, and the fact that he was able to recreate Virgil’s musical world so accurately is a testament to how communicative he could be through simply mixing records. It’s captured in the wondrous awe of that Floating Points intro, the reverential inclusion of so many cuts from Omar S and Norm Talley, the comedy of playing a track like “Final Credits” as literally anything other than your closer… it all speaks to Virgil’s abilities as a world-builder through music.
If you were looking in the right places over the last ~13 years, you’d know that Virgil was inescapable. Musically speaking, his ear had been everywhere worth going, and he lovingly shared that journey with anyone willing to listen.
One of the most reliable sources of music for me during this window – which spans half my life – has been simply following Virgil’s explorations in music and tuning my ears to whatever he found worth sharing. It’s through this lens – his opinionated and uniquely-identifiable ear for music – that I’ve grown to understand him as someone more than just the man behind the mixer. For better or for worse, Virgil’s musical sensibility has been pretty much permanently installed into my brain. It will be with me forever.
Virgil has been a fixture in my life since this whole “thing” started for me, which is uncoincidentally around the time I got my own computer. In 2022 it reads as cliché, but when I was barely a teenager, the process of me using my computer to explore a world much larger than what I had access to in West Virginia was a very real thing. Over the years, through high school and college, my closest friends have always been filtered in based on this shared, Internet-savvy pursuit for new music and new context to frame it in.
While my friends and I were (and still are!) going about our journey as “music people”, I always had an eye on Virgil and followed him in parallel. And that’s the thing: despite the age difference, Virgil was also just a guy figuring things out online, in real time, and transparently along with the kids.
I still remember where I was when my friend Jack first put me onto him back in 2009. We were in my friend’s basement, as we normally would be when hanging out and playing music, and he threw on an interview Virgil did on the v1 Yeezy with Nike. “Yo, check this guy out, he’s like an architect but he makes sneakers instead of buildings.”
A few months ago when the news first broke of Virgil’s passing, my same friend texted me about that exact moment. Revisiting the interview 13 years later, it’s amazing how the same thing that stood out to us then still stands out to us now: it’s the general accessibility of how he defined himself. Virgil wasn’t a super technical music producer or a formally-trained fashion designer. He was just some guy – a self-proclaimed “neighborhood kid” – who was down to try his hand at things. Most people beat him with that stick, but we always celebrated it. Like Pharrell showing Tyler that “he could do it too” in 2006, it was Virgil who showed us the same in 2009.
While my high school friend group had some standout talents, I would say our most discerning feature was just that we were really good at finding loose strings and tugging on them until we had more information than we knew what to do with. That was arguably more important than my ability to play the cello or my friends’ abilities to make skate videos. In this sense, Virgil was representation for our 14 year old selves: he was proof that you could carve out the life and work of your dreams with nothing more than a Macbook and a deep reverence for your craft. I remain totally shameless in saying that he was someone we aspired to.
When I went off to college in 2013, I kept following Virgil from a distance. It was around this same time that he graduated from his junior-level projects (The Brilliance, #been #trill, Pyrex Vision, etc.) and found his 6th gear. I was just then starting to look for mine, and found myself constantly going back to an interview where he discussed his college experience with The Brilliance:
[…] it's where I got my swagger. I fell into structural engineering, which was a good decision because I learned a lot, most importantly how to multitask. My motto was 50/50; half my time doing crazy school work the other half hustling and enjoying being in a college town environment. I was fortunate to find an elite crew of kids who paved the way for an amazing 5 year stretch [...] While kids were binge drinking downtown Gabriel and I were hosting soul and hip hop nights, djing and bartending uptown at the local wine bar. I feel like that's all I did. I was always stressed trying to maintain my 50/50 philosophy, but that lifestyle was superb.
Revisiting that time of my life, when I was an 18 year old kid, I’m still sorting out whether I should be embarrassed about the impact he had on me or perhaps proud of how tightly I executed the plan.
During my sophomore year of college I started writing as a music critic for the school paper, which was where I found home in a group of kids that I’m still tight with to this day. I met kids who had a similar backstory with Virgil in the sense that they knew the Raekwon song that Pyrex Vision was in reference to. They knew what I meant when I referenced “that Colette tee with all the medals and shit”. They knew who JIMJOE was years before moving out to lower Manhattan or seeing the Drake cover, because of course he was a staple on Virgil’s tumblr going back to 2012. With these new friends in my life, it wasn’t long until I had something that resembled Virgil’s “50/50”; most of my days were spent working on Engineering stuff, and many of my nights were spent listening to, talking/writing about, and mixing music with friends.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my sophomore year, 2015, turned out to be the beginning of a 6-year process of me sinking my teeth even further into Virgil’s work and finding comfort in understanding someone on the main stage. Many people would write this off as a corny or bizarre parasocial relationship, but at this point, I’ve met enough of my heroes to know when they truly are who I think they are. I simply know when I understand someone, and I can’t accept anyone who hasn’t seen what I’ve seen telling me otherwise. And reader, let me tell you: the further Virgil twisted the screw, the more closely I watched, and the more clearly I understood.
There are a million stories I could share about how Virgil and I eventually crossed paths, but if I had to pick one that best captures everything I’ve learned from him, it would start with his Spring/Summer 2016 women’s runway show for Off-White.
More specifically, the score for the show.
Operating as Paris, IL, Virgil and his close friend Guillaume Berg would create all of the runway show soundtracks for Off-White, and in the process, create a form of mix that still hasn’t been replicated since I first discovered it 6 years ago. Their mixes were essentially montages that pulled from any audio they could find or make, ranging from film dialogue, to obscure interviews, voicemails, personal phone calls, iPhone field recordings, and of course, music. The mixes were generally ~20 minutes long and would open with spoken-word intros that ranged from life-affirming to outright disorienting. Like any good speech or presentation, you’d be completely immersed within the opening minute.
Virgil’s calling card was that he would mix records that had no business being played together, and yet you’d get to the other side understanding that there was a through-line where you didn’t originally see one. It was ambitious and ultimately genius, but without ever coming off as crass or heavy-handed. You could easily see him smirking through a transition from Boards of Canada to Ghostface Killah, which somehow, just fucking worked.
Each and every one of his selections was like an educational experience for me. To this day, there is no algorithm that could ever be as reliable as simply taking Virgil’s tracklists and digging further into them on YouTube and Wikipedia. I almost always came out with something great, and it was this process of tracing his footsteps that allowed me to understand his world even more clearly.
If you cut to 5:28 on the SS2016 mix (here again), you’ll hear a man start speaking over Gesaffelstein’s “Wall of Memories”. The vocal sample is from a song called “Transition” by legendary Detroit techno powerhouse Underground Resistance. Yes, it’s dramatic, perhaps even a bit overemotional. But I remember exactly where I was when I heard it for the first time, and wouldn’t hesitate to call it one of the most pivotal musical experiences of my life. While the a cappella left an immediate impression on me, arguably the biggest impact came from discovering Underground Resistance, and by extension, the rabbit hole that is Detroit house and techno.
Once again, Virgil had provided the high that I spent so much of my life chasing: the excitement of finding great new music. But this time was different. It wasn’t just a song, or an album, or even an artist or a genre that I had unearthed; it was an entire world, soundtracked with ~30 years of music, rich with history and with an entire culture surrounding it. Over the months that followed, I became fixated on learning as much as possible about club music and rave culture, be it from Detroit or elsewhere.
If you were to slice things geographically, cities like Detroit, Chicago, New York, London, Paris, and Lisbon all had wildly different sounds, both between them and within them. I didn’t know where to start; I just knew that I wanted in. All the more exciting was that these weren’t just musical styles that were fossilized in the past. I could still go out and experience them myself firsthand.
The obvious avenue was to spend a few weekends in Detroit, less than an hour from where I was going to college in Ann Arbor. But around this same time, I was also exploring options for where to spend a semester studying abroad. Of course, I wound up settling on London, with one of my main motivations being to explore the city’s deep history in the scene. I remember watching Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore and reading up on Pirate Radio a semester before applying; I didn’t need much else to inform my decision.
Eventually, I spent the first half of 2017 running around Europe, where I was able to split my time evenly between London and any other city I could book a RyanAir flight to. Less than a year on from finding Virgil’s SS2016 mix, it was clear that he had knocked over the first of many dominos that would show me new worlds, be it through my travels or through my headphones.
When I first touched down at Heathrow that January, I was 21 years old and knew little-to-nothing about dance music, the UK rave scene, or club culture in general. I was known at the school paper as “the rap guy”, but through Virgil, I’d gotten my feet wet enough to know that dance music was something I wanted to keep exploring. I still think about how exciting it was to be that young, to have that much whitespace to explore musically, and to be in some of the best cities in the world to act on it. It was an incredibly special time in my life.
Arguably the climax of my time in Europe came about during a trip to Berlin. A friend of mine skipped a month of class to fly to Europe straight from Ann Arbor, and obviously, we had an eye on exploring the world-famous Berlin club scene. Neither of us knew much about it, but we knew that we’d be in the right place to find the experience we were looking for.
We only had a few days in the city, so we had to choose our venues carefully. After our inaugural rejection from Berghain, we linked with some kids from our hostel who kept pushing for a club called Tresor. We decided to give it a go and had much better luck there; I kept quiet and let our German friends do the talking. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Tresor is a legendary club in Berlin that refashions an abandoned department store vault into an industrial-strength techno playground. I still have the file for the poster that promoted the lineup for that evening.
We wound up being inside of Tresor for close to 24 hours. The lack of light means that you can burn an entire weekend at the venue if that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for. And of course, it was exactly the sort of thing we were looking for. It was perhaps 3-4 hours in that we made our way to the basement, and I just remember thinking that the music turned increasingly deranged the further we got from the entrance. With each room that we passed through, the further we strayed from God’s light and the more punishing the music became.
By the time we reached the basement, the kids in the crowd weren’t there for a musical experience. They were there for a bloodletting. And it was in this room, the deepest crevice of Tresor, that I finally found what Virgil had sent me to find. I want to say that within ~30 seconds after entering the Tresor basement, I heard a familiar voice, and it wasn’t my friend’s. Of course, it was the voice from “Transition”.
I remember this moment very clearly. I was on somewhat of an elevated surface, and I stopped dancing or even nodding for a minute just to fully digest the moment as it was happening (a bit like this). I looked out into the crowd, now with an elevated vantage point, and I could see that these kids were either running from something or running to something. My staring almost felt like a breach of trust. I knew that I would join them only a minute later, but I needed that time to gather the absurdity of what was happening.
So there I am, in Berlin, in the basement of Tresor, finally having my first “real” club experience, with only a single reference point in my back pocket from over a year prior, and it’s now being injected back into my ears at deafening volume. And what a fucking reference point it was: “THERE WILL COME A TIME IN YOUR LIFE WHERE YOU WILL ASK YOURSELF A SERIES OF QUESTIONS. AM I HAPPY WITH WHO I AM? AM I HAPPY WITH THE PEOPLE AROUND ME? AM I HAPPY WITH THE WAY MY LIFE IS GOING?”
You get the idea. We left Tresor after nearly a day since entering, and I remember walking the streets of Berlin grinning like a fucking child. I knew that that night I had opened a can of worms that I would spend the rest of my life sifting through. This dance music thing, yeah, it was not to be just a phase.
I remember riding the subway in Berlin at 4 a.m., wide-eyed, speechless, just trying to wrap my head around the completeness of the night. Obviously, I would not have even been in Berlin had I not discovered “Transition” a year prior. And of course, the man who played the record in the basement that night also happened to be DJ Skurge of Underground Resistance himself. I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried.
A few months later I came back to the States, and at that point, the domino effect was at full-tilt. I spent that summer interning in Chicago, where I spent weekends and evenings exploring old house records downtown and on Discogs. I discovered names like Kerri Chandler, Jerome Sydenham, Omar S, Norm Talley, Frankie Knuckles, Paul Johnson, and Moodymann. I remember sitting at my desk blasting “Atmosphere” so loud that it bled through my headphones and one of my coworkers had to ask me to turn it down. Half of my work days were spent blowing up my friends’ phones with all of the new music I was finding.
When I came back to campus, the first thing I did was get my hands on a rip of Ableton Live 9. I remember sitting in my friend Anay’s loft and deciding that I too would finally try my hand at mixing, but specifically in the same style and format as the Virgil one that kicked off this entire journey for me.
The outcome was “Act Cool Vol. 1”: a 20-min experience that I’m still proud of to this day. Fittingly, I built the intro around the “Transition” a cappella, framing it in a way that forces the listener to face the questions head-on. Anay had also set up a phone number that would play the mix back to you over the phone when you dialed it.
I’ve listened to “Act Cool Vol. 1” hundreds of times over the last few years, but the opening 2 minutes continue to stir me in a way that very few passages of music can. When I hear the questions asked in “Transition”, I have to cross-reference my life with what I thought it would be back when I first heard the song at 20 years old. It’s a check-in with my younger self to make sure he still likes what he sees. I mean, am I happy with who I am? Am I happy with the people around me? Am I proud of how I’ve used the last 6 years? Am I still on track to be what I wanted to be back when I was just a kid in West Virginia, watching rap-adjacent interviews and shit in my friend’s basement? It’s been said that Virgil was an idealistic dreamer, and in many ways, listening to “Transition” has been a forcing function for me to strive for the same.
The questions asked in “Transition” are so intrusive that in my 6 years of knowing the song, I don’t think I’ve ever played the a cappella out loud for more than 3 or 4 people. It’s what most people would describe as unsavory. No one wants to face those questions, much less in the context of an occasion where you're supposed to be hearing club music. And that’s the point.
“Transition” is ultimately a motivational song, but in an uncomfortable, borderline-antisocial way. It’s not the “You can do it” motivation they give to sales teams in Minneapolis. It’s the “You’re going to fucking die and you have a few weeks, over and over again, to make whatever it is that you want to happen, happen. Then it’s over.” type of motivation.
If there’s one thing I want people to take away from all of this, it’s that Virgil completely embodied that uncomfortable jolt. In the 6 years since I was first interrogated by "Transition" while watching those women walk the runway of his SS2016 show, it's become increasingly clear that his selection of this song represented more than just background music. It represented a standard that Virgil lived by. Simply put, he was a guy who understood that the clock was ticking. It came out in the undertones of his musical selections, but more importantly, it was visible in how he conducted his life. It’s why the open question that was on everyone’s mind a few months ago was just: “How the fuck did he make time for all of that?”
And if you think I’m over-indexing on reading Virgil through the lens of 1 song, just know that its haunting monologue echoed through everything he ever said or did.
From skating and mixing records as a teenager in Rockford, IL, to connecting with Kanye, to getting Pyrex Vision and Off-White off the ground, to mentoring the dozens of kids who came up around him, to steering that historic SS2019 runway show in Paris as Louis Vuitton's first-ever Black artistic director, Virgil “MADE HIS TRANSITION” many, many times over. And that was the lesson. It wasn’t in the work, it was in the fact that he brought it all to life.
In his own words: "If you really want to do what you say you do, leave this conversation and do it.”
The fuel behind all of this – his combination of reverence, curiosity, and urgency – was his greatest gift. Yes, his ear for music was alien. His runway shows continued to find a marked improvement as he found his stride at Louis Vuitton and Off-White. The outpouring of love that we still see from his close friends and collaborators speaks to his humanity, which is obviously something that we can all aspire to. But it was his restless cycle of digging, finding, “what if-ing”, and ultimately doing that made him one of the greats. Collectively, we have never seen anyone pull inspiration from thin air (or WhatsApp) and plaster it onto 12 stories on 5th avenue with the same childlike fervor, consistency, and explosiveness as Virgil. Every project was in service to his 17-year old self; the 12-story mannequin is just what happens when you "don’t let the questions restrain or trouble you".
The last thing I’ll say is that you don’t have to dig that deep to find Virgil’s codes. I realized only recently just how much work he did to open-source his thinking, be it in the form of his +20 hours of lecture material on YouTube (which I should probably archive soon), or the various “guides” found on his dozens of Internet estates. He literally has a corner of his website labeled “FREE GAME”. To the extent that he could, Virgil shared his thinking so that we could all play the game too.
So, it’s out there. Go find it. Go read it. Get excited about something. Feed your curiosity. Have it move your mind but also move your feet. Form an opinion. Put something out. Blow up your friends. Mix some shit that shouldn’t be mixed. Stay up later than you should to work on it. Just point yourself in the direction of your dreams. Find your strength in the sound. And make your transition.